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Federal court rules against adding citizenship question to 2020 Census

Benefits, risks of conducting census online

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross's decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census violates the Administrative Procedure Act and the Enumeration Clause, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday. Judge Richard Seeborg of the Northern District of California ruled that the question was "quite effective at depressing self-response rates among immigrants and noncitizens, and poses a significant risk of distorting the apportionment of congressional representation among the states."

"In short, the inclusion of the citizenship question on the 2020 Census threatens the very foundation of our democratic system," Seeborg wrote in his decision. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra had challenged the question, arguing that adding a citizenship question would discourage undocumented immigrants from responding, which could therefore affect the state's congressional representation.

Seeborg agreed with that rationale, calling the addition of the question "arbitrary and capricious." He also said that the question "affirmatively interferes with the actual enumeration and fulfills no reasonable governmental purpose," therefore violating the Enumeration Clause, which calls for the regular counting of American citizens. He was convinced by California's expert witness testimony that the inclusion of the question could result in a 5.8 percent estimate of nonresponse by noncitizen households, which would make it 50 percent more likely that California could lose a congressional seat.

However, Seeborg said that future citizenship and other demographic questions may be deemed constitutional, as long as they have a clear justification.

"Where the inclusion of a particular question will degrade the accuracy of the Census to the point where the proper apportionment of representatives among the states is at risk, the government must identify a legitimate governmental purpose that is sufficiently weighty to justify this significant harm to the census," he wrote.

The Supreme Court agreed to take up a case on the citizenship question in February, which could allow the question to be included. A district court judge in New York ordered the Trump administration to drop the question in January.

For now, however, California has been handed a victory.

"Justice has prevailed for each and every Californian who should raise their hands to be counted in the 2020 Census without being discouraged by a citizenship question," Becerra said in a statement. "We celebrate this ruling, an important step in protecting billions of dollars meant for critical services Californians rely on, from education, to public health and safety."